Teachers Union Fights ‘Watered-Down’ Charter Standards

MANHATTAN (CN) – Emphasizing the much stricter standards to which New York holds its public school teachers, the state’s largest teachers union filed suit to vacate the “watered-down system” adopted this week for certifying educators in 167 charter schools.

“Among other things, in terms of education, the regulations would eliminate the need for a teacher to ultimately achieve a master’s degree or even, it seems, achieve bachelor’s degree,” the complaint states, filed on Oct. 12 in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Given force on Wednesday by the Charter Schools Committee of the State University of New York Board of Trustees, according to the complaint, “these regulations significantly undercut the quality of teaching in SUNY-authorized charter schools by permitting insufficiently prepared individuals to educate large numbers of high needs students beyond that which is already allowed for by law.”

“Further, they would have the effect of leading potential educators through an essentially fake certification process, one not valid for employment in New York’s public school districts, other charter schools, or the public schools of other states,” the complaint continues.

Joined by Local 2 of the United Federation of Teachers Local 2, the New York State United Teachers union filed its lawsuit alongside a pair of teachers who work for two of the 167 charter schools authorized by the SUNY board.

They are represented by Latham-based attorney Robert Reilly, Adam Ross for the United Federation of Teachers, and the firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.

Central to the complaint is the claim that the SUNY Charter Schools Committee is restricted to oversight and lacks authority to adopt regulations.

“The commissioner [of education for New York] has the sole authority to issue teaching certificates and to promulgate regulations for teacher certification – for all teachers,” the complaint states.

After the committee’s end-run this week, the commissioner and the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents called their regulations “an affront to a critical tenet in education: rigorous and high-quality teacher preparation programs foster high-quality teachers who increase the likelihood of students achieving proficiency on state standards.”

Representatives for SUNY have not returned a request for comment.

The teachers’ union says the committee began touting “less rigorous teacher certification requirements for charter schools” this past July, its limited authority notwithstanding.

As adopted on Oct. 11, the regulations in question include an “increase in the number of hours of instruction required, a decrease in the number of teaching experience hours required, and the addition of a single examination,” according to the complaint.

The teachers’ union says these rules were finalized despite last-minute changes that were not subject to the proper notice-and-comment period.

Of chief concern to the union is that the SUNY method for certifying teachers “directly conflicts with the teacher certification requirements as set forth in the Charter School Act for charter schools operating in New York.”

“Specifically, the SUNY Regulations allow charter schools authorized by the SUNY Board of Trustees to submit for approval to the Charter Schools Institute an ‘Instructional Program” providing for an alternate path for teacher certification,” the complaint states. “This directly contradicts the Charter School Act mandate that charter schools operating in New York employ teachers who are certified in accordance with the requirements ‘applicable to other public schools.’”

In giving charter school teachers a pass on formal degree requirements, the union says the SUNY committee called it enough for the Charter Schools Institute to sign off on a given teacher’s “necessary knowledge and skills.”

“In terms of instruction,” the complaint continues, “the teacher would need to achieve a set number of ‘clock’ hours of instruction. In terms of experience, the teacher would need to achieve only 40 clock hours of field experience. The at issue regulations contrast starkly with the Commissioner’s Regulations for classroom teachers.”

Public school teachers — who cannot be certified without a bachelor’s degree it should be noted — meanwhile are required to complete more than “70 ‘semester hours,’ each of which represents multiple hours of instruction over the course of the semester at an accredited college or university, with over 50 of those ‘semester hours’ in general education core, content core, and pedagogical core studies,” according to the complaint.

The teachers union contrasts this with the revised SUNY regulations, which “only require 160 ‘clock hours,’ or actual hours, of instruction in content core and pedagogical core instruction.”

Public school teachers cannot be certified, the union says, without passing three examinations: the teacher performance assessment, the content specialty test and the Educating All Students test.

SUNY on the other hand would give charter school teachers a choice of “either the state teacher certification examination, the Educating All Students test, or an examination which measures, at a minimum, all required elements of the EAS test, and is approved by the institute.”

While the education commissioner requires certified teachers to complete 40 school days in a college-supervised teaching experience or as an employed teacher, according to the complaint, the SUNY committee’s regulations “only require a mere 40 ‘clock hours’ of ‘field experience appropriate to the certification being sought.’”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew offered a theory as to the need for such watered-down requirements in a public-comment letter to the committee this summer.

“That some charter chains, facing high levels of teacher burnout and departures, cannot appropriately staff their schools is not reason for the state to radically depart from its decades-long effort to ensure a highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” Mulgrew wrote.

The charter school teachers who joined the unions’ fight note that they “will be harmed [by enforcement of the regulations] because he and they will bear a larger burden of responsibility for the effective education of students who have been taught by teachers certified through a less rigorous process.”

Those who will be hurt most are the children, the complaint notes. As Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia and Betty Rosa, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, noted in their public-comments letter to the committee, “students of color, those that are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities” make up a large demographic for SUNY-authorized charter schools.

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